COLUMBIA — Emma O'Connell is using her website to change the way farmers interact with consumers.
Last fall, O'Connell, who lives near Rocheport, founded Pick-A-Pepper to connect farmers with consumers in their area. As she posted regularly on her Facebook page, her website grew in popularity. A year and a half later, the page has more than 12,000 likes, and more than 60 farms sell their products on the website.
Posting products on Pick-A-Pepper is free. Some farmers have found the website to be a good outlet for reaching new customers, which is difficult for growers who live far from a large urban area.
"I live in the country, and I didn’t really have an outlet for getting rid of mass quantity," Morning Light Farm owner Wade Emery said. "They have buyers from not only around here, but coast-to-coast as well."
Emery sold corn and tomatoes on the website last summer and plans to do so again next spring and summer if he has a good harvest.
After establishing a steady readership, O'Connell expanded the website to allow farmers to sell not only produce but their knowledge and experiences. On a new portion of the website, farmers can broadcast workshop and internship opportunities.
"I wanted to think beyond selling tomatoes and eggs," O'Connell said. "Hands-on learning is way better than reading a book. To learn from someone who’s done it for a long time, and learn from mistakes they've made is so important."
Farms have already begun posting workshops and internships on the new area of the website, which launched last week. The EarthDance farm in Ferguson has used the website to advertise a Jan. 19 workshop about handling and packing produce. The Haskin Family Farm in Middletown, Va., posted a six-month internship to work with turkey, pork, chicken and eggs.
Teaching the next generation is an important part of sustainable farming, O'Connell said. She often thinks about the way her children, ages 2 and 3, will live once full-grown.
"I don't think the way we live today is very sustainable for the future," O'Connell said. "I want to teach my kids to be self sustainable and have an appreciation for nature."
Her son, Avery, grew a patch of garlic this summer on her farm, Red Buds, southeast of Rocheport. O'Connell put a sign with his name next to his plants, and enjoyed watching him become involved in the way they grew. Although her children are enthusiastic about the process of growing the food, they have mixed feelings about the output.
"They don't eat vegetables; I have to sneak it in," O'Connell said. "They would eat pizza and quesadillas every day if they could.”
This winter, O'Connell is growing kale, chard, arugula and spinach. She has a supply of canned and frozen green beans, carrots and peppers she grew in the summer, which she expects to last until spring. O'Connell usually gets her milk from a neighboring farm, but its goats are pregnant and not producing milk now.
"It's important to have the community infrastructure; not everyone has to have everything, (but) it’s important to have a network that does," O'Connell said. “Pick-A-Pepper has the potential to build those connections, to know what's available in your area."
O'Connell began living simply at a young age. Her family always kept a garden, and her father, a carpenter, taught her how to build things. After she moved to Hawaii to study anthropology, her interest in gardening grew, sparking a lifestyle change.
"It gave me an appreciation for the need for everyone to start moving back toward less consuming, and more doing," O'Connell said. "I wanted to live more like the way people traditionally lived, not that I do that by any means, but just more of a simplified lifestyle, a little closer to the land."
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